How to Make Healthy Fast Food Choices

November 02, 2017
women eats a burger and fries on a blue plate with ketchup

As Americans, we’re always busy. We often don’t have time to create healthy, nutrient-dense meals at home, and sometimes we have to just grab whatever fuel we can find. In fact, we eat and drink approximately a third of our calories outside of our own kitchens. That means the choices we make when eating out make a big impact on our overall health.

The FDA has announced that by May 2018 any restaurant with 20 locations or more will have to post the calorie content of the foods they serve on their menus. But the number of calories in a food doesn’t measure the amount of nutrition it actually contains. Although this is a step in the right direction, ultimately the basis for good health lies in the quality of the calories consumed not just the quantity.

A good example: a salad that’s topped with healthy fats (such as avocados or nuts), grilled chicken, and grains. A small order of french fries might be significantly less in calories, however the salad is still the better option. Although it contains more calories it’s packed full of protein, fiber, and good fats that will keep you full and satisfied for much longer.

The FDA’s new policy also does not take into account sugar or sodium content, and we all know how important it is to pay attention to those! Luckily it is possible to make better choices when having to resort to fast food, and we have some tips that will help you stay on track for optimal health.

How to Make Healthy Fast Food Choices (When You Have No Other Choice)

Salads. The rules:

  • Choose lean meats (such as turkey or grilled chicken) or beans instead of anything battered and fried. Remember that deli meats are very high in sodium.
  • Use nuts instead of sugary granola, and fresh fruits instead of dried.
  • Opt for vinaigrettes instead of creamy dressings and only use half the packet.
  • Example: Chick-Fil-A’s Grilled Market Salad. With lettuce, carrots, blue cheese, and assorted fruit, this salad packs a lot of nutritional power in one meal.

Burgers & Sandwiches. The rules:

  • Omit condiments and sauces, and pack on extra veggies whenever possible.
  • If you can, ask for extra lettuce and no bun!
  • Opt for a side of sliced apples or small side salad over fries.
  • Say “no” to cheese.
  • Example: Burger King’s Grilled Chicken Sandwich. It has good lean protein, just be sure to ask for no mayo and extra vegetables!

Breakfasts. The rules:

  • Choose whole wheat for tortillas, wraps, or breads whenever you can.
  • Go vegetarian to cut back on sodium (sausage and bacon are very high in salt).
  • If getting oatmeal choose fresh fruit over sugary topping or dried fruit.
  • Example: Dunkin’ Dounuts Veggie Egg White Flatbread. With whole wheat flatbread, veggies, cheese, and less calories and sodium than most other things on the menu, this is a good choice when you need a quick bite.

Looking for more healthy fast-food swaps from a certified nutritionist? Check out this article from Greatist.

It is always best to choose whole (mostly plant-based) foods, and cook as much as you can at home in order to better control sodium and sugar content. However, following this advice when eating at a fast food restaurant will make every meal count, not just ones you make in your own kitchen. No matter what the circumstances, making the smart choice for high-quality calories will be the best compromise for fueling your day!

[Credit: Short, Abbey. “Here’s the Fast Food A Nutritionist Actually Orders (Yes, She Eats It!).” Greatist.]

Tags: health tips, food, weight loss, diet, nutrition, eating out